I’m now trying to turn my blog away from petty concerns about marketing and promotion, and toward more edifying ideas. At the learning center, my middle-schoolers are studying the building blocks of literature–setting, character, plot, motivation. I thought I would set aside a few posts to give my readers some insight into how those components work in my current book, The Novice Master, and why I made the choices I did. Today’s topic is Setting.
NM actually has two settings: There is the monastery setting of the first chapter ( which was originally going to be the Prologue, until I decided I wanted a more simply constructed novel). The rest of the book takes place largely in Professor Barlowe’s old house on West State Street in a mythical town in a west-central portion of New York State’s Southern Tier.
I set the first chapter in the mythical monastery of Mount Benedetto in southwestern Pennsylvania, because I thought it was important to show where Barlowe was coming from, and provide some contrast for his ‘afterlife’ in New York State. I envisioned this monastery as similar to a Trappist or Cistercian house; I was thinking vaguely about the famous abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, which I’ve read numerous descriptions of; Mount Benedetto is a little more ‘old school’ however. I have written about this mythical abbey before: It appears in my first novel, Secret Vow. I cannot say that I have ever been in an actual monastery, except perhaps for the tourist attraction of Clonmacnoise in Ireland; but I do have some familiarity with religious architecture: The seminary of the LaSallette fathers and brothers next to my grammar school, the old convent that used to be next to the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Hartford; and the seminary where my uncle the Franciscan priest taught in NY state, where I spent a weekend once as a teen visiting him. An entire wing was roped off just for me, with a sheet suspended across the hall that I had to duck under, so I could sleep and shower without provoking the seminarians. What all these places have in common is that they were seriously quiet places, orderly, clean, yet about the corridors there always seemed an air of faint expectation and hope mixed with resignation. In most of these places, religious imagery does not abound in an intrusive way and they are, generally–to use an adjective that gets used more than once in NM, ‘Spartan.’
The second setting for my book is more secular. Why did I choose to set it in a largely overlooked section of New York State? Purely out of nostalgia, I confess. I grew up in the capital city of Connecticut–and literally in the city, within walking distance of the gold-domed State Capital building; I live now in a very busy town in Northern New Jersey, a bedroom community for Manhattan. I spent four years in western New York state attending college, and I loved it. I loved the stretches of wilderness and rolling hills dotted with odd little towns and communities and also the big snaking Allegheny river. Every morning after getting out of bed in my dorm, I would look out at what were actually the foothills of the Allegheney mountains, and feel comfort in seeing them there. They felt like guardian-angel mountains, watching over me as I made my way from class to class. It was not an easy place to live: The weather was particularly brutal, with snow coming sometimes in October and lasting until April or even May. I can tell you what it feels like, to walk around in 20-below weather: You can actually feel your nosehairs freezing up and everything goes numb in an instant. But I loved all of it, the crazy deep snow, and the ultra-lush greenness of early September, and the trails to the river through leafless trees in early spring. I remember telling my fellow writing students then that I thought the area would be a terrific setting for a novel–Not everything has to take place in New York City or the South? Through the writing of NM, I was able to revisit this land once more, and it was a very satisfying thing. I just hope I did it justice.